Story, photo, and video by Michael Buckley
In the paragliding paradise of Pokhara, Nepal, the writer glides on warm air currents to see what it’s like to fly with birds of prey.
Fasten your harness, slide back into the seat-rest, and get the meat ready for the vulture.
We’re floating half a mile above Phewa Lake, in central Nepal. It feels like a lawnchair catapulted into space: there’s a pilot right behind me, but up front, only thin air. Looming on the horizon is a breathtaking string of Himalayan snowcaps; below is a tapestry of farm terracing, carved out of mountainsides. And far, far below, the shimmering lake.
Out of the blue, Bob shows up. Bob is an elegant flier, trained to land on your gloved fist to pick up morsels of buffalo meat. He’s an Egyptian Vulture—quite handsome compared to other vulture species as he is not bald—instead sporting white head feathers. Hand-reared from birth, Bob has been imprinted on humans, but his aerial instincts are all natural. He can find thermals in a flash—a skill that birds have honed over millennia to conserve energy by using updrafts. Thermals are the Holy Grail for paragliding pilots, who depend on these air currents to extend their flight time.
Bob’s eyesight is probably 15 times sharper than human vision. Right now, he is rocketing between two paragliders, using his razor-sharp vision to chase his breakfast. There are two tandem paragliders. My pilot, Elly, blows a whistle to signal for Bob to glide onto my gloved hand for a meaty reward. Piloting the second tandem is Scott Mason, who pioneered this zany form of paragliding, known as “parahawking.”
Lazy Griffons and Overdosing Vultures
It’s a supreme thrill to be flying by the seat of your pants and admiring Bob’s acrobatic maneuvers as you interact mid-air. Wheeling around in the thermals up here are other birds of prey. Earlier, we spotted two Crested Serpent Eagles. And right below us are three Himalayan Griffons circling effortlessly. Griffons are lazy birds that rely on air columns to keep them aloft. Suddenly the pilot lets out a piercing shriek. “What was that all about?” I ask. “One griffon was getting too close to my lines,” she says, “so I’m warning it to keep away.” Evidently, paragliders fear bird strikes too.
The Himalayan Griffon is a majestic vulture with an eight-foot wingspan. And a bird in deep trouble. Back on terra firma, at the lakeside home of the parahawking outfit, I take a peek at a bewildered griffon sitting in a covered cage. It was gorging on a horse carcass, ate so much that it could not take off, and became a target for Nepalese kids who threw stones. Scott rescued the greedy griffon and has kept it for a few days to recuperate (and lose weight) before it can be set free.
The last 20 years have seen a meteoric drop in the number of vultures across Asia. Scott explains why. “The White-backed Vulture population has declined 99 percent since the early 1990s. All vulture species in Asia are under severe threat because of an anti-inflammatory drug used in livestock called diclofenac. When vultures feed on a carcass, they ingest the drug, which results in kidney failure.” Even though the drug was banned for livestock use in India and Nepal in 2006, inducing farmers to use a safe alternative called meloxicam is an uphill battle.
Vultures are not exactly poster material for a conservation campaign, but they play a vital role in the eco-system. “Vultures are nature’s cleaners,” says Scott. “These scavengers are especially needed in India and Nepal where you have sacred cows that are not disposed of in a normal manner. India produces something like 15 million tons of carcasses each year. If the vultures are not there to clean up the mess, then feral dogs may move in, which can lead to rabies problems.”
One Phone Call, a New Life
So how did an English graphic designer end up parahawking in Nepal? Timing, passion, following dreams. In 2001, Scott took a year off from his business in London to circle the globe. While in Pokhara, he decided to learn how to paraglide. Not so much as a sport, but to be closer to birds in flight: he had taken up falconry at the age of eleven. Over a few beers, he talked passionately about bird-training with the paragliding instructor, Adam Hill. When he was about to catch a plane from Nepal for Thailand, Scott received a phone call that changed his life: two Black Kite chicks had been rescued in Pokhara after a tree was cut down. Would he like to train them to fly with paragliders?
[YouTube video by Michael Buckley, using a GoPro Hero2 camera set at wide-angle and mounted on an extension rod.]